Much has been said and written about the financial crisis in Greece and the devastating consequences it has had on people’s lives.
Returning to Athens after three months, I found a state close to dissolution and people at the edge of their limits with stories of despair and humiliation making the daily news. Even medical journals such as The Lancet claimed that the annual suicide rate in Greece has increased by 40 per cent since the crisis began as a response to soaring unemployment, tax increases and bankruptcies.
And indeed unemployment has already affected one third of the population with more than three million citizens now below the poverty line, struggling to survive with less than 300 euro per month.
As the crisis deepens, the society is changing; and the signs of that dark change can be seen everywhere. You see it in the streets of Athens, once busy and bustling, now empty and quiet, reminding you of the strange silence that precedes the storm.
You see it in the many closed shutters of small businesses in the city centre and the black graffiti on their facades, as one out of three shops in central Athens have had to shut down as a result of the recession and the drastic decrease of salaries.
But above all you see it on people’s faces: anger, fear and desperation seem to have taken hold of everyday life.
Hope is long gone from Greece, as is compassion and solidarity. People are looking for someone to blame and politicians and media know very well how to take advantage of that. With the forthcoming elections the agenda has shifted from the serious social problems to the “threat” of illegal immigrants and the creation of detention centres.
It’s quite contradictory if you think that while the majority of Greeks would be willing to immigrate by any means to Australia or the US, the same Greek people do not question the rhetoric on the illegal immigration in Greece.
Greek society has never acknowledged its share of responsibility. For so many years the city centre was considered as a drop-off for illegal immigrants, drug addicts, homeless and prostitutes: destitute people just left to fend for themselves: easy prey for the network of drug dealers and human traffickers that operate almost undisturbed in the city. Such problems Greek politicians acknowledge only when it fits in their political agenda.
Today, the number of drug addicts that beg, sleep or errand in the streets of Athens has doubled. The majority are chronic users, once involved in rehabilitation programs and today deprived from treatment and heroin substitutes as a result of the drastic cuts in the health budget.
Next to them the homeless, the lonely, the elderly and mentally ill are either wandering, sitting on the broken pavements or lying underneath dirty blood-stained blankets begging for the mercy of strangers. All those disadvantaged groups of people that were the first to pay the burden of the austerity measures and are now left to live and die in the dirty streets.
The crisis has now overpassed them and is taking over the once thriving middle class. Almost every family has been hit by the crisis and everyone has a story to tell about a relative or a friend who has lost a job and struggles to survive. In the new era of economics, severe cuts in social spending and drastic decrease of salaries are considered the best remedy for pulling a broken country out of bankruptcy.
As society’s crisis deepens, politicians and multinational chains have discovered “solidarity”. With the help of newly established NGOs, baskets of food and clothes are being distributed to the poor and unemployed by the same private sector that in the name of the current crisis, fired thousands of employees and deprived hundreds of basic labour rights and descent salaries.
In May, the first elections since the beginning of the crisis are going to be held in Greece. The lying games have already begun and people are confused and angry, staring blankly at an uncertain future. An uncomfortable feeling of reclusion, disbelief and despair hangs in the air. The politicians who crushed the country’s economy and opened up the gates to the most predatory forces of international finance are now asking to be re-elected. The Greek society, deeply harmed and easy to manipulate, seems to be in a limbo state. What meaningful choices are left for the people? This seems to be the question that no one can answer in Greece any more.